Book Review on Facebook-Whatsapp Threatens Democracy by Debasish Bhattacharyya

Launching a politically sensitive book in a politically charged environment that exists now is indeed challenging. However, for a book that engages its readers so they lean into its content, stay on its pages, and relate with the book’s information, it’s not that challenging. ‘The Real Face of Facebook in India’ written by Cyril Sam and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is one such book.

The book is all about how social media have become a propaganda weapon and disseminator of disinformation and falsehood. Undoubtedly, it has been possible due to readily accessible internet, abundance of smart phones and cheap data. More than 300m Indians are believed to be now on WhatsApp, making the country by far its biggest market.

It’s no longer TV and political rallies of varied nature alone; Facebook too has become the central battleground of election in the Indian context. There is little doubt that Facebook and WhatsApp have changed our society significantly. And, in the present day context both are considered as critical components of political management and political network.

The authors in their book divided into 19 short chapters critically examined how Facebook and WhatsApp have been complicit in promoting the interests of India’s ruling dispensation and its right-wing majoritarian social and political agenda. Also detailed how Facebook arrived at the dominant position it currently holds with the support of those closed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Sam and Guha Thakurta cited quite a few examples to show how news media organisations and journalists, critical of BJP leadership have been deliberately marginalised and censored by Facebook. Evidence collated by them indicated that certain Facebook India senior employees have worked and continue to work closely with the BJP.

While the writers’ duo found India has emerged as the biggest disinformation factory in the world in recent years, they also found that unlike in other countries, Facebook’s criticism in India has been subdued. Here, I am reminded of a vital piece of information –

According to Jeremy Wright, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, UK, the era of self-regulation for online companies is over. The UK’s Home Office, and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport of late jointly planned to regulate social media platforms, so as to hold them responsible for the spread of “online harms,” like misinformation, terrorist propaganda, and content depicting child sexual abuse.

Some wondered whether these rules will run against the right to free speech, also whether the regulatory authority will be able to effectively sanction establishments in violation of said rules and whether it’ll be equipped to navigate instances in which it encounters content that is borderline or potentially harmful to society. However, both Australia and Germany said to have already introduced similar legislation.

Sam and Guha Thakurta mentioned how Narendra Modi had realised the importance of internet and social media well before he became Prime Mnister. Also, how Mumbai based Rajesh Jain, an internet millionaire helped execute an elaborate marketing exercise surrounding Modi’s persona as early as in 2010. Not much is known however about the outcome of October 2018 meeting between Congress party functionaries and Facebook’s senior India representative.

It’s  mentioned how Facebook has often succeeded in making politics appear akin to game and in the process disrupted and weakened systems and institutions responsible for strengthening democracy and provided authoritarian rulers opportunities to manipulate electoral processes.

According to authors, Facebook’s most recent transparency report shows a steady increase in the number of government requests for information and details of user accounts, usually be law enforcement agencies, over the past five years.

The book goes on to bring up how Cambridge Analytica scandal did take place necessitating quite a churn in the higher echelons of the top brass in Facebook and its related entities.

The book referred to several articles talking about the disruptive power of social media, Facebook and WhatsApp in particular. One such article by a by US-based digital activist and technologist published in The Caravan argued that Facebook’s community guidelines selectively policed content that was against Narendra Modi and his government. The activist cynically remarked: “Facebook thrives as a banana republic of the digital world. Digital-rights groups have been requesting to audit Facebook’s community standards and algorithms for years due to its caustic social impact, to no avail.”

To drive home the point, writers’ duo mentioned how within hours of the terror attack in Pulwama, messages started circulating on Facebook and WhatsApp in huge numbers targeting the ruling party’s and Modi’s political opponents.

According to them social media based propaganda and disinformation post Pulwama and Balakote attacks indicate that the BJP and its party functionaries are responsible for misusing the technologies with impunity and Facebook and WhatsApp have done little or nothing to contain the misuse despite loud claims to the contrary.

In this book detailing Facebook’s impact on political communication and democratic culture, the writers have been able to generate curiosity allowing the readers to discover for themselves the state of affairs in the world’s largest democracy. The presentation of factual materials makes the book even more interesting. The book is at its best when discussing intelligently the apparent manipulation of public opinion over social media platforms that has emerged as a critical threat to public life.

It’s a book that one just can’t put down – A great, confident, and engaging read.

Finally, in conclusion, let me mention what Charles Assisi, an award-winning journalist, in his article Why I hate Facebook wrote – “Facebook is evil for two reasons. First, it makes you dumb. Second, it takes over your life. That’s why I chose to quit Facebook.”